T. C. Williams School of Law
University of Richmond
January 7, 1999
I have been asked by many concerned Muslims and non-Muslims to provide my views on the recent article, entitled "What is the Koran?" published by The Atlantic Monthly in its January, 1999 issue. I have reviewed the article and find that it presents highly speculative arguments based on remarkably selective data supporting a point of view hostile to Islam. Furthermore, it relies on stereotypical assumptions about Islam, rooted in a biased perspective deeply offensive to Muslims.
Of course the author, Toby Lester, is entitled to his opinion on Islam. In a free market place of ideas, anyone may say almost anything. However, articles like his do not contribute positively to the ongoing efforts of building bridges of trust, compassion and understanding within our pluralistic society. For this reason, it is important for American Muslims to make their views and feelings known to their compatriots. This is essential for the robust exchange of ideas.
Early America and Islam. I would also like to note that this sort of writing is not new in the United States. In fact, it has a long history, not unrelated to the writing which was being generated in colonialist Europe. For example in the Eighteenth century, during the days of the Founding Fathers, this country was reading works by Voltaire, Prideaux, and others that created an atmosphere of disdain, hostility and distrust of Muslims. There were books about the Prophet Muhammad, with titles such as The Nature of the Imposture, stating that Islam was a false religion. Another book, Cato’s Letters, argued that the Prophet was a tyrant and that tyrants like him opposed the free expression of ideas. Several American novels featured fictional Muslim spies in America or oppressed Muslim women saved by Western men.
Constitutional Debates. In fact, even the constitutional debates referred to Islamic constitutional precedents. In particular, Webster, Henry and Dollard spoke of the evils of Turkish despotism. Hamilton, on the other hand, exhibited greater insight into the Turkish empire when he argued that the Turkish Sultan was weak and had limited powers. This position led Hamilton to argue for a strong central government in the United States.
In short, for centuries, Islam and Muslims have been regarded in the West negatively and suspiciously. This negative and untrustworthy image has led to numerous serious consequences. It has, for example, impacted the civil rights of American Muslims, and most recently, has facilitated the use of airport profiling and secret evidence against many of them.
In earlier times, a significant Muslim slave population in the United States was in no position to respond to distortions or even freely practice its faith, despite constitutional protections for freedom of religion. A secondary consequence of that situation was that claims hostile to Islam went unchallenged. These claims remain till this day generally unrecognizable as hostile by the average reader for lack of adequate familiarity with Muslim history, values and beliefs.
America Today. Fortunately, today’s America is enjoying the fruits of the seeds of constitutional liberties planted by the Founding Fathers. Today, a Muslim response to civil rights violations and Islam bashing has become possible, in fact welcome to some, in this country. With pluralism as an established fact in our society, Americans have found it necessary to re-examine earlier myths about other religions. Serious interfaith efforts have proliferated to build bridges of trust, understanding and compassion among the various faiths. Muslims, a significant segment of the American population, have been active participants in this effort for civic as well as religious reasons. For, despite stereotypical views of an intolerant Islam, our religion does order us to engage in interfaith dialogue and enjoins us to use the best words in such dialogue. (Qur’an 29:46)
"Otherizing" Muslims. In this context of harmony and public civility on the part of most religious leaders, the Atlantic Monthly article represents a serious lapse into earlier modes of "Otherizing" the Muslim through the eyes of Orientalist writers. While this press release is not intended to be a detailed scholarly criticism of the article, some problems will be highlighted. Many scholars in the field have made it clear through private correspondence that they intend to address the claims made in the article in a scholarly arena, eschewing journalistic sensationalism. I now turn to some salient problems in the article.
From Stereotyping Muslims To Defective Logic. First, the article opens with a picture of the desert and sandals, silently evoking a stereotypical image of a primitive people. Then, the first part of the article describes an important find, which we are told suggests that the Qur’an was not revealed, a central belief for Muslims. What sort of a find could suggest that? Some writings, reportedly from the seventh and eighth century, which differ in some respects from the Qur’an as Muslims know it. As a logician, I fail to see the logic of this highly speculative argument. At best, the find could suggest a set of possible interpretations.
For example, one interpretation is that the writings represent a defective attempt by some Muslims to write down the Qur’an from memory. History tells us that the Qur’an, which was revealed orally, was first committed to memory, then parts of it were written down by various individuals. During the rule of the third khalifah (Caliph) ‘Uthman, it became clear that those who knew the Qur’an perfectly by heart were passing away. So, ‘Uthman called the most knowledgeable and reliable Muslims, such as the surviving Companions of the Prophet, and gave them the task of putting together in writing a fully and completely accurate version of the revealed Qur’an. They did, and ‘Uthman ordered all other written versions destroyed. Could it be that a few copies in Yemen were buried instead? That would be a more logical interpretation, since it is consistent with known facts from Islamic history. Could it be that the writings were executed later (in the eighth century) by someone with a defective memory who did not have access to the written ‘Uthmani Qur’an? Sure, yet the story of ‘Uthman’s mandate is mentioned at the end of the article without pointing out its devastating significance to the highly controversial conclusion drawn by Mr. Puin, a calligrapher, from such flimsy evidence. The article also refers to the group appointed by ‘Uthman as "an editorial committee of sorts," thus suggesting an editorial as opposed to an authenticating function. Such subtleties are not lost on Muslims, but they would be easily missed by the average reader.
Conflation of Issues. Another problem with the article is its attempt to conflate issues within Islamic jurisprudence to make the claims of Puin and others more sympathetic. For example, the article conflated the claim of the historicity of the Qur’an, which is rejected by Muslims, with the issue of Qur’anic interpretation which is essential to Muslim jurisprudence. There are many respected jurists, past and present, who have engaged successfully in Qur’anic interpretation. I have personally argued for its necessity, based on the statements of classical jurists. I have even stated this position in various Muslims countries, and at times at Shari’ah schools. My statement was accepted as unexceptional.
Qur’anic Interpretation. The rub in Qur’anic interpretation is not its possibility, but rather in the ability to do it properly. Interpretation based on ignorance of the Arabic language, rules of grammar or historical context (asbab al-nuzul) amount to bad scholarship. Colonialism, especially in Algeria, has had the effect of forcibly divorcing the people from their Arabic language, the language of the Qur’an. As a result many attempts at interpretation have been patently defective logically or linguistically.
Distorted Analysis of Individual Cases. Fazlur Rahman, an important Muslim scholar, never identified himself with any particular school of thought, including the Mu’tazilite. He carried the torch of Islamic modernization and thus angered supporters of the status quo in Pakistan. Abu Zaid’s problems and the violence against some Egyptian writers deserve a deeper analysis of the situation in Egypt which suffers from a blatant absence of democracy. In a country which has for decades executed without due process hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, most notably the great jurist Abd al-Qader ‘Awdah, it is clear that the problem is not Qur’anic interpretation. It must be also clear that non-democratic governments engender non-democratic responses. By oversimplifying and misconstruing the deep-rooted problems there, we continue to justify American support for non-democratic regimes in the region.
Additional Harmful Consequences. Most significantly, articles of the type published by The Atlantic Monthly seriously complicate the work of those of us who are truly interested in bringing democracy, freedom and tolerance to Muslim countries. By casting Qur’anic interpretation as a rebellious act against tradition, it gives ammunition to those reactionaries who would like to preserve the status quo, and their tyranny over the people, in the name of religion.
For all these reasons, as an American Muslims jurist, I am deeply offended and injured by this article.
Wassalamu alaykum (Peace be with you).